Birds at rubbish tip a danger to nearby airport


It looms above you as you drive out of Ben-Gurion International airport. A vast, ancient monument, perhaps, the first holy site in the Holy Land? Unfortunately not. The flat-topped brown hill has strange white-flecks resting on it. Get nearer and the white flecks turn out to be birds, not resting but feasting. By now, the stench is overpowering and you'll know what you're confronting: Israel's main rubbish dump.

The odour and unsightliness of the Hiriya dump are the least of its problems. Towering proof of Israel's continuing disinclination to incinerate, never mind recycle much of its rubbish, it has risen to 82 metres - so high as to pose a serious threat to flights in and out the country's main airport.

Those feasting birds, attracted by the decomposing waste, play havoc with the air traffic. Minor collisions between birds and aircraft are increasingly common. Airport security staff acknowledge many instances of aircraft damage and of pilots having to change course to avoid the birds.

Every environmentalist and travel safety expert in Israel will say Hiriya's rising tide of garbage and its growing bird population constitute a major accident waiting to happen. If that sounds alarmist, it may be worth noting that the Israeli Air Force, which has lost only 22 planes in air combat over 50 war-punctuated years, has lost another eight through collisions with birds, often with the deaths of their crews. Situated at a crossroads for migration, Israel is said to have the world's highest concentration of birds per square mile. Environmentalists are doing their best to minimise the threat by improving radar tracking of migration routes and adapting flight paths accordingly, but to thwart the threat posed by the Hiriya dump, they need strong government backing. So far, they haven't had it.

The last Labour government talked non-stop about closing the Hiriya. It even set a 1995 deadline, but failed to impose it.

The current government has set a December 31st deadline for a phased closure, but nobody expects to see that honoured either - not with the army and local residents clamouring to block the five proposed alternative dumping sites and with local councils refusing to pay the extra costs of transporting rubbish to these more distant dumps.